Reform or perish?
The opposition Syrian National Council has been criticised for reappointing its present chairman for a third consecutive term in office and for statements at the UN that Al-Qaeda is active in Syria, saying that the terrorist group is in fact at the beck and call of the regime, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus
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Lebanese Sunni Muslim men, with faces covered, stand, after they burnt tyres to block a road to protest against the killing of Sheikh Ahmed Abdel-Wahid, a Sunni Muslim cleric, and Mohamed Hussein Miraib, both members of the Lebanon-based 14 March political alliance
The Syrian National Council (SNC), a leading opposition group outside Syria, re-elected Borhan Ghalyoun for a third consecutive term as chairman this week, Ghalyoun winning two thirds of the votes of the council's general secretariat.
However, his re-election was immediately criticised by the opposition outside and inside Syria, protesters attacking Ghalyoun personally and describing him as a "clone of Bashar Al-Assad," the Syrian president, in an expression of outrage that the leadership has not rotated.
The SNC, established in October 2011, comprises the majority of the Syrian opposition outside the country, most prominently the Muslim Brotherhood, the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change, and centrist Islamist groups and independent figures, as well as Kurdish parties, which nevertheless suspended their membership three months ago.
According to its regulations, the SNC is supposed to hold elections for the top post every three months, and the seat should be rotated among all members of its secretariat.
Ghalyoun was re-elected three months ago for a second term, and the opposition did not object at the time, although it contradicted internal rules. However, this time round protesters wanted to see the re-election as an opportunity to reform the SNC, which has thus far done little to support the protesters inside Syria and had failed to convince the world that it is an alternative to the incumbent regime.
Its activities have mainly focussed on media and diplomatic endeavours, and it has not achieved much in terms of uniting the opposition under a single umbrella or in carrying out humanitarian aid.
After Ghalyoun's re-election was announced, protesters raised banners demanding his departure, calling him a "new dictator". The Local Coordination Committees (LCC) representing the popular movement in the SNC said that the council was "politically incompetent" and that its vision was "at the opposite end of the spectrum to the revolutionary movement".
The LCC was critical of what it called the "marginalisation" of the popular movements, complaining that high-profile figures monopolise decision-making in the SNC. It threatened to withdraw its members from the council if it was not reformed.
In response to the criticism, Ghalyoun said that he had accepted a third term because he was the only figure who could command a consensus in the SNC. He said he would be "responsive" to the revolutionaries and would leave office as soon as someone else could be chosen by consensus.
Ghalyoun proposed that the SNC should meet again this month to elect a new secretariat and chairman, urging it to amend its regulations in the meantime.
Rodeif Mustafa, a lawyer and director of the SNC's human rights bureau, told Al-Ahram Weekly that "the SNC is built on consensus, and at this point it cannot hold democratic elections. The majority wishes to follow the English proverb, 'don't change horses in the middle of a race.'"
The difficulties facing the SNC were "not just about the chairman, but also about the role of the executive office and the lack of democracy, institutional action and mechanisms. If it is to survive, it must work quickly to activate its actions."
The SNC comprises a variety of political ideologies, Mustafa said, which expressed the diversity of its members. The Muslim Brotherhood has tended to dominate the SNC, and differences have emerged among its components about its closing ranks with the opposition inside the country and foreign military intervention.
There has also been debate about whether the SNC should be the "sole representative" of the Syrian people, resulting in the resignation of several members over the past few months in protest at what they saw as personal interests infecting its outlook.
"Re-electing Ghalyoun was not a bad move during this sensitive phase," Naji Tayara, a SNC member, told the Weekly. "A few days ago, the Council submitted a plan for the need to reactivate it and to expand its membership to include other opposition forces that have emerged in the revolution."
Tayara said that the SNC "is not the property of any one person, but is a nationalist umbrella group for all. We must work on making it successful as a basic requirement during this phase. We must support its chairman and encourage him to lead, instead of obstructing him."
However, other Syrian opposition forces, especially the Coordination Committee of Forces for Democratic Change, the dominant opposition bloc inside Syria, believe that the SNC's biggest problem is a structural one and that this will continue irrespective of the chairman.
Hazem Nahar, spokesman for the Democratic Forum, one of the opposition blocs made up of independent figures, expressed the opinion of a large sector of the opposition. "The SNC's problem is not Ghalyoun, but its structure, formation and mechanisms," he said in an interview with the Weekly.
"The malady of the opposition is that it lacks genuine political leadership. Whenever one is about to be formed, others step in to destroy it. Disarray will continue as long as there is no central leadership."
Contesting Ghalyoun's re-election was George Sabra, a left-wing Christian opposition figure who was imprisoned for many years in Syria. Sabra won one third of the votes of the secretariat, and news leaked out that he was likely to become council chairman because of his being championed by protesters inside the country.
Many in the opposition also viewed Sabra's election as a means to convince minorities that they are partners in the Revolution and Syria's future.
Suleiman Youssef, a Christian activist, said that "the SNC's crisis is deeper and greater than the chairmanship. Instead, it is fundamentally about the people who established the Council and want to be the guardians of it, and even of the Syrian opposition as a whole."
"Since the beginning, the Council's policies were based on the executive office being the legitimate alternative to the regime, and its outlook has remained focused on this belief. Today, what is needed is to disassemble the executive office and to rebuild it to incorporate all members of the opposition, according to the needs of the Syrian uprising."
Some members of the opposition also assert that the SNC is controlled by countries such as Turkey and Qatar, that there are hawks and doves on the Council, and that members have been distracted by marginal disputes that focus on recognition by the Arab League and the international community. Instead, they say, it should be focusing on overthrowing the Al-Assad regime.
Many observers remain optimistic about the future of the SNC as the representative of the revolutionaries and the leader of the transitional phase, though others are pessimistic about changing the SNC's policies.
However, all insists on the need for the SNC to continue to exist because it represents a large section of the opposition to the Syrian regime and its failure would negatively affect the morale of the popular movement inside the country.
Al-Qaeda on demand
A few months after the first anniversary of the start of the Syrian uprising earlier this year, a series of bombings rocked the country, killing dozens of people, most of them civilians. The Syrian opposition accused the regime of carrying out the bombings to spread instability in the country and to "take revenge" on the Syrian people, who are unfazed by the regime's crackdown, arrests, torture and killings.
For its part, the regime, led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, has blamed armed terrorist groups for the bombings, starting to proclaim they are the work of Al-Qaeda.
A previously unknown jihadist group, Jabhat Al-Nasra, claimed responsibility for the attacks, this group also claiming that it was part of the Al-Qaeda organisation and broadcasting video footage in which it claimed responsibility for the bombing in Damascus on 10 May that killed 55 people.
However, Syrian activists have ridiculed the statements of this alleged Salafist group, pointing out that Al-Qaeda only uses Hijri dates in its statements and begins all its statements with religious phrases. The statements by the Jabhat Al-Nasra group did neither, raising suspicions about their authenticity.
Later, the real Jabhat Al-Nasra published a statement on its website denying that it had been responsible for the attacks and describing the video footage as entirely fabricated.
The opposition argues that the regime's failure to thwart the uprising in Syria has now caused it to propagate rumours that Al-Qaeda is operating in the country, carrying out bombings itself to try to convince the world that it is fighting terrorism and not putting down a peaceful uprising.
Despite the denials from Jabhat Al-Nasra, the regime has stuck to its story, with the Syrian ambassador to the UN asserting that armed terrorist groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda "are committing horrific crimes" in Syria.
"We are witnessing explicit claims of responsibility for terrorist operations in Syria by groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda," he told a UN General Assembly session, adding that he had a list of 26 people, whom he described as terrorists affiliated to Al-Qaeda, who were working in the country.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Al-Muqdad accused the West of helping Al-Qaeda across the Middle East, adding that those fighting against the regime in Syria were "criminals and drug dealers".
The next day, Syrian authorities announced that they had arrested several Tunisian nationals whom they claimed had entered Syria illegally across the border with Turkey to participate in battles alongside the opposition. It said that several of the Tunisians had been killed, and Syrian state television broadcast confessions by some of them in which they admitted to being terrorists belonging to Al-Qaeda.
Tunisia's interior minister later said that there were Tunisian nationals in the ranks of the armed Syrian opposition, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), but he did not denounce their actions, describing them as "young men who are taking uncalculated risks in traveling to Syria" but not saying that they belonged to Al-Qaeda or terrorist groups.
The official Syrian media broadcast an edited version of the Tunisian statements, making it appear that jihadists from Al-Qaeda were going to Syria. For its part, the Syrian opposition said the televised confessions had been made under duress and could result in the execution of the Tunisian youths.
The Syrian regime then sent a message to the UN, accusing some regions in Lebanon of harbouring Al-Qaeda and terrorist groups along the border with Syria, putting Lebanon in the same basket as Turkey, Libya, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, all of which are accused by Damascus of supplying the opposition with weapons and exporting terrorism to Syria.
In response to the arrest of Arab nationals in Syria, three Gulf states warned their citizens against traveling to Lebanon, with intelligence reports in these countries claiming that political groups that support the Syrian regime could kidnap Gulf citizens and hand them over to Syria for display on Syrian television, claiming that they were Al-Qaeda fighters.
Statements by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on Friday accused Al-Qaeda of masterminding a suicide bomb that killed dozens in Syria a week ago also surprised the opposition in Syria because of their timing and content.
Anti-regime forces said they were shocked that they had come from the top echelons of the UN, reiterating that the Syrian uprising was peaceful and that it rejected extremism and terrorism. The UN's statements supported the rhetoric of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, it said.
Prominent opposition figures said that they had "never heard of Al-Qaeda's presence in Syria. This is a new ploy: Al-Qaeda on demand".
The opposition insists that the UN has no evidence that Al-Qaeda is active in Syria, adding that the UN could be attempting to blame a third party for the perceived failure of the Arab League and UN-backed Anan plan that had been hoped would bring peace to the country.
It fears that some sort of "deal" may have been done between the regime and the international community to ease the pressure on Al-Assad, with the regime's continued security crackdown being evidence that the international community is giving Damascus a chance to stamp out the Revolution.
Such accusations seem to have resounded at the UN, for the next day Ban withdrew his statements, adding that an investigation was underway to find the identity of the "third party" that could be behind the bombings.
Observers believe that UN rhetoric about Al-Qaeda's being in Syria could be interpreted in several ways, including as a prelude for intervention, as a way of giving the regime carte blanche to suppress the revolution, or as a way of hinting that the "third party" is Hizbullah.
"The regime has released a large number of prisoners belonging to extremist Islamic groups and jihadists," Ayman Abdel-Nour, editor of the website We are all Partners, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Abdel-Nour, a former friend of Al-Assad when the latter first came to power, said that "the regime is moving on three fronts right now. First, it is acting against groups that follow Al-Qaeda and are present in Syria and Lebanon. Second, is highlighting the persecution of Christians to win the sympathy of the West by portraying itself as the protector of minorities. Third, it is trying to export its problems to Lebanon."
UN statements about Al-Qaeda in Syria "do not necessarily mean that these groups are working against the regime. There is evidence that they served the Syrian regime in Iraq, and their presence could be a pretext for more assertive intervention. Reports of a 'third party' could be a reference to Lebanon's Hizbullah, which has become a concern for the US," Abdel-Nour said.
Since the early weeks of the uprising last year, the Syrian regime has done its best to portray the protesters as armed gangs and extremists, but the international community has been unconvinced.
It has also attempted to scare minorities in Syria, saying that should the country's majority Sunnis reach power, they would be threatened, a claim the opposition has denied again and again.
The regime has now moved onto even more dangerous territory by claiming that Al-Qaeda and international terrorism are operating in Syria to justify its continued armed operations and the presence of tanks inside the cities, the opposition says.